OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Interview with Kathryn Travers of Women in Cities International

An interview conducted with the Director of Programmes of Women in Cities International, Kathryn Travers, about the Women in Cities' joint publication "Gender and Essential Services in Low-Income Communities" along with Jagori, which looked at matters of women's safety with regards to the gender service gap in water an sanitation. We discussed in particular her insights of the challenges faced in India as well as the importance of empowerment.

Photo of Anya Ow
1 3

Written by

This was a great interview and we're very grateful to Kathryn for taking the time to talk to some design students on the other side of the world!

As a background, we stumbled across this research document ( x) "Gender and Essential Services in Low-Income Communities" which was published by Women in Cities International and Jagori, which looked at the safety problems women in two low income Indian communities faced while trying to access sanitation. It was a challenge that was completely unknown to us and as such we researched it further and finally decided to try contacting Kathryn to have a talk. 

We've definitely been inspired to look at more collaborative, participatory ways in which we could address the ideas stage: one of the key learnings was that the simple act of engaging the local female community in questions about their own safety and situation was often in itself empowering. 

One main challenge would be to create a solution that is sustainable, and perhaps to have an eye towards trying to link up with the public sector. Another important part of the process is helping to create safe spaces for women that are women-only, where women can feel safe, share stories and collaborate in their communities. 

Questions raised - the problems faced are so basic and so widespread that it seems extremely difficult to address without sweeping infrastructure and political/cultural development. A huge percentage of rapes and sexual assaults in India occur when women go out of their homes to answer a call of nature. 

Since there might be more insights that other people might get from the interview, I've (very slowly) transcribed the whole thing below. Hope it helps.

Transcript of Interview conducted by:
Meaghan, Simone and Anya, with Kathryn Travers, Director of Programmes, Women in Cities International 

M: Thanks for coming online and having a chat to us.

A: This is Meaghan, I'm Anya, and this is Simone. We're doing the OpenIDEO project on women's safety.

M: Yeah we would just like to ask you some questions - we read your research and we thought we needed a bit more conversation about it. So we'll just start off by asking a few of the questions that IDEO finds interesting about what they want to achieve. 

M: What did you find were the 2 biggest challenges faced by women and children in low income socio-economic areas, particularly India?

K: That's a really good question, there are so many challenges. One of the big ones we try to come back to is recognising their legitimacy to participate and to feed into conversations. So going back into governance questions. In our work as you saw we tried to start from women and girls being recognised as experts about their own safety issues and therefore being in the best position to be able to speak to what those issues are, and also ideas as to how to fix those things. 

The hard part is having other people in the community recognise that legitimacy, having them find that confidence, and to have other authorities and decision makers give them space to receive that information. So I think that's a really big one.

Another one is... as with a lot of projects and programs is - because so much responsibility falls on womens' and girls' shoulders, the burden of care for example, and unpaid work that they have to do in households, their time is so limited that it's really hard to find a time that works for everyone, but particularly what's difficult is sustaining involvement over a period of time. 

Ideally, we would want the same core group of people to follow a process, so that they can learn gradually and kind of appropriate things, and have that empowerment aspect really built in. The reality is that that's extremely difficult to do, and so you don't advance always at the same pace that you would necessarily hope for. You know, you've got to go at their pace, and sometimes their collective pace as well, which sometimes means reintroducing content revisiting things, and that can be a challenge too, because you don't necessarily get as far as you would like to with programming.

M: Do you find that their culture in general is making it really difficult for them to progress further in regards to those issues? Is it getting worse, is it the same, are there any initiatives that you know of that might be advancing that?

K: As far as I'm concerned, I think that [the women in India] are doing a better job than we are, for example the women movement in India is super strong, and super mobilised, and super connected... they're political, they're savvy, they're in touch with communities and with each other, and it's really amazing what they do, which is way better than any kind of women's movement that we have in Canada right now, for example, which is very disconnected and stuff like that. These are things that they do, and they do a really incredible job in that regard. 

I think what happened is that after the rape in December last year, there was a collective awakening, which also meant that there were political ears and doors and budgets open to support the work. So a few key things happened. One was that because of all the work that was happening up until that point anyway, there was data available to inform the reports, and to inform the legislative change and things like that. The fact that all that was in place, and there was a door open to it, meant that they were able to advance things quite a bit quicker, and it also gave a lot of legitimacy to the work that was already being done.

And the government needs to show response, so it's important to always think of what what are some policy recommendations and things like that which could be integrated into a larger legislative framework. and that was also right, so the government could pick up those pieces and it did feed directly into the reports, which was exceptional and really interesting, and I think it's resulted at least on paper some concrete changes that would hopefully have a more lasting effect.

I think the other thing that happened was that there was a kind of a cultural shift or awakening in the community especially in the country to issues of women and girls, people reacted with anger, which was sustained over time, and I think that created a dialogue or a first step that we look for, in a long term systemic cultural change, a transformative change, is in place. how it will turn out in the long term will remain to be seen, but I think the first step is already there.

M: So the foundations for people to feel comfortable about having this conversation, including men, do you find that cultural shift has really accelerated this issue in the last couple of years or is it a really sudden movement that has come out of nowhere?

K: To be honest I think it's a bit of both. I think the conversations were happening in some circles. I think it really entered the mainstream everyday dialogue where people started talking about issues of harassment and things that were largely ignored or accepted as cultural norms, it became a real focal point of conversation, everyday conversation, not just activist circles and such, so I think, a bit of both.

M: We recently discovered the term 'eve-teasing' - would you be able to give us your insight on 'eve-teasing' and what you experienced when you were researching?

K: 'Eve-teasing' is basically the term in India for sexual-harassment. It's very specific to the country. There's a feminist backlash to using that term because it's seen as toning down what is actually sexual harassment and some cases assault. There's been - trying to - a shift away from using such terminology and into meaning what the issues are.

M: In regards to not using the term 'eve-teasing' but sexual harassment, when women are trying to access sanitation or bathrooms or toilets, or trying to get clean water, is it worse in those circumstances because they are on their own? Are they more exposed to being harassed in those areas or is it basically the same everywhere they go?

K: No, I mean, certainly there's... we noticed anyway that there's an acute risk of that, because of the inadequate infrastructure that's in place for things like water and sanitation facilities it forces - or you know, or limited times that those facilities are available or are not maintained, or are costly, a number of reasons, women are often forced to use open fields for defecation, in particular, and now what's happening now is twofold. 

One, the areas around the slum communities are also developing, in an informal way, in a lot of cases, but it means that open space or green area that they'll otherwise go to is a little bit further now, so they have more of a journey to take, and because of honour and shame and stuff is still quite important in Indian culture, it's important to go where they feel that they have some privacy, especially with a male view. 

So they are seeking areas that are more isolated, so it puts them at more of an acute risk. And they try to have coping strategies such as going in groups and things like this. Certainly there's a particular risk around accessing water and sanitation services that isn't otherwise not necessarily present in the same way, even if in fact at the end of the day we're talking about sexual harassment and assault, it's different. 

M: So when they do find some facilities that aren't out in the open, do they encounter men in the female bathrooms? Like how do they deal with that situation when it arises?

K: The whole issue with women having been excluded from all these urban development processes is that they haven't had a say in infrastructure. So there's some basic things that should be in place that women probably would have thought of if they had been consulted. For example, there's one space at the top of where the toilets are where the roof comes down, there's a space, it's open. So men would go over and look in and peer at them and make comments. I mean, some very basic things that you think they would have thought of. 

Another thing that's happened is that there are caretakers who man the toilet complexes and things like this that you pass on your way in, and sometimes they're paid [complexes] as well, so they collect the money. But they're hanging out with their buddies, so there's a bunch of men who are there and they're sometimes drinking and playing cards, and it creates a whole environment that's insecure for women because they feel a bit more vulnerable too when they're going to a washroom. 

But what we did find in the project that we did was that the fact of even having this kind of a project where we were talking about these issues was that once we engaged them with it, and let them hear from women themselves about what their experiences were and how the caretaker and other men's behavior affected their sense of safety... there was... they didn't realize that they could have that kind of impact on that. From there, there was a bit more sensitivity and conscientiousness about that, and there were some steps taken to try and address some of those behaviors.

A: I noticed that apparently the police engaged the youth movement a bit more. Was that a lasting development?

K: That's a good question. That community in particular was the one that Action India was working on. I'm more in contact with the Jagori stuff. As far as I know - but I could be wrong. But I think it has been sustained because we did see some results quite soon on that one too, it made a huge difference in terms of the experiences that girls faced and really facilitated them being able to go to school and feel safe doing that. But good question.

M: It's just mind blowing the issues that they have to go through every single day that we just take for granted, for example going to the bathroom, getting water. Are there any particular initiatives that have stood out for you in regards to sanitation and women's safety? Are there any movements that are really helping women in India access facilities?

K: So the work that we did on this was really the first time that water and sanitation issues were looked at from a women's safety lens, so there's really not much of a precedent and so forth. And clearly there's a need, and clearly there's a link. And I think that particularly since we came in from a... we used safety basically as an entry point for looking at some of these issues, which I think allowed us to get further than we would have had we just come in and said that we just want to do a WASH project. And so that's interesting, and I think that we did have some concrete positive change that resulted, which of course it's a short project too. And there was also a methodology that was tried and tried successfully. So I would be hopeful that we would be able to try out the methodology in other places too just to generate some information about what this looks like and what could be some good practices in terms of addressing these issues, particularly from a safety perspective. 

So all that's to say - there's not necessarily some good practices, especially in urban areas that I can think of right now that I've come across. I know that since then now this project is kinda interesting, because it was finished some years ago but it's the one that we get the most questions about still. It's the one we've done the most interviews on, people are constantly contacting us for more information about it.

M: Definitely not surprised.

K: Right. But you would think that [our donors?] would hear that and go, oh yeah good idea, let's try that somewhere else. Not yet. But we're hopeful. I think there's clearly such a need for it, an understanding for what that means and what that looks like, and really have some concrete recommendations for what that means to develop or design a toilet complex that would take into consideration women's safety needs. The women we worked with did do toilet designs as part of the activities that they do so there were some toilet recommendations that they came up with, but I think this could be used in some other communities as well, particularly in urban areas, a lot of water and sanitation projects are concentrated in rural areas.

A: I note that in urban areas a lot of the bathrooms are by the Sulabh movement. He's mentioned that his bathrooms are safer for women, but I think that he's such a big celebrity that very few people criticise his work, so I haven't been able to see whether they really are safer? 

K: The issue with Sulabh toilets are two, that there's no one to maintain them. So I think - and this is a personal opinion that I have that I feel very strongly about - I think that especially when it comes to issues like service provision, I think that without any kind of partnership with the public sector, I think that you have no business doing it. I think it creates problems, it's more harm than good, it's not sustained, it creates dependencies, I think it's not the right approach to it, because at the end of the day, you do need someone to take accountability. You need someone to invest in a more sustained way, to maintain facilities, to make improvements, to have employees and such. So Sulabh ... they did create some [toilets]  but then they didn't necessarily have anyone to man them, to clean them, to make sure they're maintained in a usable way. 

I realize they've gotten a lot of... they've won all these big sanitation awards and stuff like that but I think there's probably a more responsible way to go about it.

M: How do you think we can change the mindsets around the values of girls and women, for themselves. I know it's really hard tackling both genders on this, but how can we make women feel empowered to be able to- 

A: To get involved in infrastructure and gender-sensitive planning?

K: You engage them - it's not rocket science. We did a project with adolescent girls - like Cairo's a good example of that, it's a very big, male-dominated culture, and the girls are asked not to say anything, and they're really kept inside and stuff like that. I believe in participatory methods. 

Even through a diagnostic phase, and scoping and studies that we did for the project, we asked girls do you feel listened to, do you feel that you have a say when it comes to your safety, in your community and such, to try and gauge from them their sense of inclusion as well as the other safety questions that we address, as well as asking them what do you want to see changed in your city, and what for you is the biggest thing that needs to happen. 

Girls are practical. They want the same things as we would. They know what the issues are and they know what could and should be done. And just to ask them that, and to give them space to reflect, to think and to suggest is so powerful. Because often times... sometimes girls are solicited, but really just to show their experiences, but not really their ideas and opinions particularly about what positive change there could be and about how they could be involved in it. And so just creating that space is so powerful. 

So in Cairo we asked when we were doing this diagnostic phase, issues about inclusion and having the right to have a voice and participate - those came out as much as any safety questions that we asked. You know, issues of harassment in Cairo are upwards of 98% for people - yeah, it's really ridiculous. So despite what these girls face on a daily basis they're also citing that importance of being asked and listened to, right up there, I think it's really telling. 

A lot of girls in that study - we reached over a thousand girls - they cited often that this was the first time that they were being asked their opinions. And it was just that in itself was empowering. Having that sort of space, being recognised as legitimate actors, agents of change, and not just beneficiaries to programming or policies... I think that especially with girls we talk about things really just through a protection lens, I think that needs to be balanced with empowerment as well. 

And so I think that: just listen to them, and recognise their right to speak out too and have a say about their own lives, and  about their own cities, and that's what we want at the end of the day too. We talk about cities being inclusive, and we want everyone to feel that they can see a bit of themselves in the city, and that the city is built and designed with them in mind, and - so that sense of shared ownership is there. 

M: What aspect of girls' experiences in urban areas are getting better? Whether its schooling or university or access to education so that they have this feeling of being able to be included and to be agents of change? Does the government have any initiatives such as in regards to... for example if they go to university, can they contribute easily, or is there still a barrier that they can't get through?  

K: The short answer is both. Especially when we talk about urbanisation we really talk about ... there's definitely been an increase in opportunities in accessing... girls that move to cities they get married later, they get better education about reproductive rights, they have better access to healthcare, they're less likely to suffer from female genital mutilation. They're more likely to be educated, more likely to be educated longer, have access to employment... it just goes up and up and up what their opportunities are. There are of course increased vulnerabilities as well, which is what we try to reconcile. But I think quite conclusively, just moving into and living in a city is a huge opportunity for a girl today. And we've seen more and more migration, of girls independently from rural areas to urban areas for those exact reasons too. 

A: What social enterprises or business solutions have been successful in empowering women at the bottom of the economic hierarchy? 

K: There's a lot of microcredit that happens. I think there's some interesting examples in that, although it's not by any means my area of expertise. The ones that are more managed by groups of women themselves, so they take from a communal pot and put back in. It's less... you know by a third party bank who's also tacking on the interest. It seems to work very well and have a collective empowerment as well as an independently economic one. I think that microcredit and given women an opportunity for economic empowerment has also been proven to have a positive ripple effect throughout families and communities. Women have been proven to be better redistributors of wealth and of food and things like that, so when they're given an opportunity to be financially more independent, that gets spread around more than when it's men who are the breadwinners. 

A: What community structures are crucial to helping women and girls feel safe and empowered? 

K: That's very specific to different communities. One thing that's very important is for women and girls to have a safe space to meet, where they can learn about their rights, where they can not feel threatened, where they feel that they can participate fully, where they can share their stories, where they can be listened to. I think that often means a sex specific place too: women only, or girls only. Girls' clubs, for example, work really well, but I think that... that kind of exclusive spaces are often quite necessary as part of the process.

M: Are there many pre-existing at the present moment? Or do you think there's still a lot more work to do with regards to that?

K: I think there are quite a few, and I think there are more and more, but I think quite clearly, there's still a whole lot more work to be done. We're trying to work ourselves out of jobs here, but I think we'll be employed for a while more. 

M: Do you find that because of this empowerment of women, this social change that's happening right now, do you find that they're actually able to feel comfortable in creating their own community structures, as in females only? Have you seen any communities that actually just make them on their own? Or have they had to have help doing that?

K: There's certainly been things that happened on their own, I don't think that people necessarily always need external help. Sometimes they go by different names or aren't recognised as such necessarily, but I think it's pretty intuitive for people to organise those kinds of things and themselves. Women are community organisers. It happens innately whether or not it's on a development radar is perhaps a different question but it doesn't mean that it's not happening. 

M: Thank you so much for chatting to us, it's been absolutely helpful. 

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Meena Kadri

Amazing interview, Anya! We're super grateful to you, your fellow students and Kathryn for sharing these valuable insights.

Something that stood out for me:

"A lot of girls in that study... cited often that this was the first time that they were being asked their opinions. And it was just that in itself was empowering. Having that sort of space, being recognised as legitimate actors, agents of change, and not just beneficiaries to programming or policies... "

I'm really looking forward to what that might inspire for our upcoming Ideas phase.